Thursday, September 30, 2010
foreign forgotten friday: Hugo Hamilton's Headbanger
Ken Bruen is not the only, or even the first, to create a sad poetry of Irish life in crime fiction. In the late ‘90s, just before Bruen’s Jack Taylor first appeared in The Guards, Hugo Hamilton wrote two novels (Headbanger and Sad Bastard) about a complex cop named Pat Coyne. The language of the books is allusive, poetic, brutal, and often funny, more narrative than dialogue, and the action is based on Coyne’s personality, which has some elements of OCD and Aspergers (he collects facts compulsively, especially about nature, and spouts them as a substitute for conversation or social interaction)
He’s trapped in his own head, in terms of making any real contact with other people; he’s good with his kids, though. The melancholy tone and poetic language suggest a range of writers, Irish and otherwise, from Beckett’s early novels to Donleavy’s Ginger Man to the lyrical noir of Jerome Charyn’s too-little-known Isaac Quartet, four novels that the New York Times described as “like a series of subway stops on the way to hell. ”
In Headbanger, Coyne is a uniformed patrol cop, a Garda, in early-Tiger, rapidly changing Dublin, and while dealing with petty crime on the streets, he fixates on a petty criminal, Joe Perry, and a big-time gangster, Drummer Cunningham, who is in the process of legitimizing himself and thereby insulating himself from police retribution—which just makes Coyne angry. Coyne’s wife, Carmel, is just coming into her own after having three kids, delighting in her newfound talent as a painter, and Coyne can’t drag himself out of his antisocial ways and his obsession with Cunningham.
Meanwhile, Cunningham is murdering witnesses, appearing at charity events, and opening a new night club. While Coyne is pursuing Cunningham, against the express orders of his boss, Perry keeps crossing his path and causing mayhem. All the threads of the story come together in a spectacular climax.
Coyne is a man who just can’t stop himself from going too far. The sequel is a kind of coda, extending the sadness and comedy, but Headbanger is complete in itself.